COLUMBUS — Willie Knighten, Jr., convicted of murder in a 1996 drive-by shooting in Toledo, will walk out of a Lima state prison a free man tomorrow after Gov. Ted Strickland commuted his sentence to time served.
The governor Monday cited a letter from and a conversation with the late Lucas County Common Pleas Judge William Skow on Knighten's behalf as the primary factor in his decision. The commutation made Knighten eligible for release from Allen Correctional Institution tomorrow on what was previously a sentence of 18 years to life in prison.
"My staff actually talked with (Judge Skow) before his death and before he wrote the letter,'' Mr. Strickland said. "That letter and conversation were of great importance. I almost certainly would not have taken this action without knowing that the judge who heard the evidence and imposed the original sentence felt that there had been an erroneous decision on his part.''
Knighten, now 37, was convicted on June 5, 1997, of murder and attempted murder, both with gun specifications, in the fatal shooting of Irving Turner, 29, and the wounding of Adaris Welch. Mr. Turner was shot in the head in the 1100 block of Toledo's Fernwood Avenue. Mr. Welch was shot in the shoulder as he fled.
Although Mr. Strickland indicated he feels "in all likelihood'' that Knighten wasn't the gunman, his clemency decision does not wipe out his conviction. Without the commutation, the earliest Knighten could have been considered for parole was in October of next year.
Judge Skow, while on Lucas County Common Pleas Court, had convicted and sentenced Knighten after he waived his right to trial by jury. The judge subsequently second-guessed himself, ultimately agreeing with Knighten's contention that he was not guilty.
"Over the past years, I have become increasingly persuaded that my findings were erroneous and that — in fact — it is more likely than not that Willie Knighten was innocent of the underlying charges," Judge Skow wrote earlier this year in a letter to the Ohio Parole Board. "This case has weighed heavily on my mind ever since."
“There is no single fact or circumstance to which I can point which exonerates Willie,'' Judge Skow wrote. “Rather, it is an accumulation of facts and anomalies that have led me to this belief, buttressed by the intensity of his protestations.''
He wrote that Knighten was represented by a young attorney who “was in over his head'' and who made several mistakes, including failing to properly challenge eyewitness testimony.
“Whoever shot Irving Turner, the victim was looking away from the three supposed female eyewitnesses, and was on the opposite side of the vehicle,'' he wrote. “Indeed, two of the three women were sketchy at best in their testimony, and the other (Jackie Turner, the victim's sister) while positive, should have been subjected to much stronger cross-examination.''
Judge Skow noted that he'd been visited by both Laverne Knighten, Willie Knighten's mother, and Addie L. Turner, the victim's mother, who said they believed Knighten wasn't guilty.
That letter made the difference. Knighten's was just one of 296 clemency decisions issued Monday, but it was one of just 10 sentence commutations and the only one that will result in the immediate freeing of an inmate.
All of the applications have been pending since at least 2007. Sixty-three were holdovers from Gov. Bob Taft's administration.
The governor granted clemency in 78 of the 296 cases, denying the rest. There were 68 outright pardons.
Mr. Strickland said the evidence favoring commutation in Knighten's case "would certainly have not been as compelling'' without Judge Skow's letter.
"The parole board had originally denied his request, and the compelling reason that I am granting this commutation is because the individual who heard the evidence and made the original decision regarding the sentence communicated to us directly and convincingly that an error had been made,'' the governor said. "Commutation was appropriate.''